Can Doctors be Community Leaders?

Mustafa Laith is a medical student at the University of Baghdad in Iraq and an alumnus of the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program. Just months after returning to Iraq, Mustafa co-founded Students for Humanity (Students4H), a student-led community development organization based in Baghdad.

We interviewed Mustafa to learn more about his activities with Students for Humanity and his reflections on leading a volunteer organization as a medical student in Iraq.

World Learning: Describe Students for Humanity and why you formed this organization.

Mustafa: Our team focuses on volunteer projects that can be summarized by one common theme: “share.”

First, we share health, and through this project we run campaigns on the ground and through our website and social networks, such as blood donation drives (three drives so far), certain disease prevention campaigns such as tuberculosis, H5N1, and Hepatitis B and C, and other health awareness campaigns in the city, schools, and health centers.

Second, we share knowledge and culture, by talking about raising cultural awareness, how to be an active part of the community, and morals. We deliver these ideas through seminars and educational sessions.

Third, under our share ideas umbrella, we share many ideas with students, professors, health officers, and other people on how to help, do volunteer projects, and be a role model.

Fourth, we share experiences, by offering our help to others in organizing their campaigns, assisting in getting approvals, advising on how to conduct the project properly, and sometimes even sponsoring or participating in it.

Lastly, we have a project called  share figures, and through this we highlight the biographies of great Iraqi characters. We launched a special website for this project: ourfigures.students4h.net.

We also conduct other projects to support the rights of girls in education and women’s rights. We held a conference on International Girls Day in 2012, in association with the 4X4 organization and the United Nations. We have also participated in many campaigns to support children financially and spiritually.

WL: What impact do you hope to make in Iraq?

M: We hope to work throughout Iraq and conduct our message properly, mainly to the politicians to support the youth and fix the problems that we care about: child labor, lack of women’s rights, and a poor health system. Our motto is, “For the spring of Iraq we work.” We want to raise the health and cultural level of Iraqi society.

WL: What is the biggest asset of Students4H?

M: The most important asset is our team. We are all medical students from nearly all the colleges of Baghdad in addition to Basrah and Najaf. Our society sees doctors as role models, so they take what we talk about and do very seriously. Additionally, another important asset is the enormous enthusiasm that our team members have to be active and take initiative.

WL: What is the biggest challenge you face in your work in Iraq?

M: I will say time and support. Considering we are medical students, we are busy most of the time with our studies. Besides that, another major challenge is that we lack financial support. So, we have to do many efforts and self-funding to organize our events.

WL: Did your experience in the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program introduce you to any new ideas or concepts that had an impact on your work?

M: IYLEP was the torch for me. It introduced me to myself, what I can do and what I can not. It exploded and extracted the potentials inside me, even ones I did not know about. The program improved my skills in civic engagement, cross-cultural dialogue (as we deal with different people with different mentalities in Students4H ), and how to approach our projects through these bushes of different minds.

IYLEP taught me through its sessions and the new friends I made, including both Iraqis and Americans. All these factors made me a new person, developing my skills and potential to rise to a completely new level that I would never have reached in just about one month.

WL: And why are you personally invested in this work?

M: Because I am a human being and a doctor, and seeing the suffering of others gets me very depressed, but also enthusiastic to do something helpful and try by every means to draw smiles on the faces of those who are suffering.

WL: In addition to volunteering for Students4H, you’re also balancing life as a medical student. What does it mean or entail to you to be a doctor?

M: It means a lot. To be a doctor is to be a human first. You are in a position that is in connection with people from all over the country, different classes, different educations levels, and different mentalities. So you have to deal with each of these people in a different manner to meet their needs. So, to be human first, then to be doctor, is how I’ve become inspired with the project “Students for Humanity.” I want to help the orphans, the widows, women, and people who seek help.

WL: Do you see doctors as community leaders?

M: Yes, because as doctors we get in contact with different people that consider doctors to be well-respected, well-educated people in the community. They listen to what doctors say and see what they do; therefore we are role models and leaders in the community.

When we started our field trips, providing financial and spiritual support to the orphans and leukemic children, that motivated many students in other colleges to do what we do and start teams to help the community with its problems, such as child labor or a lack of necessary medications. What we do is reflected back in the community, so by behaving well and doing humanitarian projects, it encourages others to go forward and do similar or better projects.

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